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dot life Monday, 23 September, 2002, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
The science of sport
Paula Radcliffe, PA
Many British endurance runners use pulse monitors

Technology is invading practice pitches, gyms and sports clubs and is slowly making training a science.
We cherish sport and its stars for many reasons, not least for their athleticism, dedication, skill and competitiveness.

Some must sure envy the fact that those taking part seem unencumbered by the technology that weighs down the rest of our lives.

Competitive sport is raw, undiluted physicality and only muscle decides the outcome. It's as natural as childbirth albeit with slightly less screaming.

Run London
Getting ready for an event requires motivation
In sharp contrast stand the days, weeks and months of training that go into getting an athlete, be they elite, amateur or occasional, to a race, match or event. Technology is playing an every-growing part of training.

Now many competitors pound the roads, bench or pitch festooned with enough technology to make an MIT grad student wince.

Some technologies, such as the stopwatch, have been around for a long time but others are only now starting to be used by keen amateurs rather than just elite athletes.

Heart-rate monitors are becoming increasingly popular by amateurs keen to monitor their progress, for it is a good guide to show just how hard you are working.

Exhausted marathon runners, PA
So how did he do against his best time?
Most monitors are worn on the wrist or around the chest and many allow the user to download the data collected into a PC so as to chart their progress.

The monitor maker Polar has a sponsorship deal with UK Athletics, and many British endurance athletes - those running distances of 800m and upwards - use them to train.

But the monitors can help almost anyone improve, and can provide a useful fillip to flagging motivation, says Nigel Wallace, head of the Fitness Industry Association.

"They have value in that they offer a different dimension to training. The more dimensions you have can help maintain your interest."

King of the road

Programmer Dave Rawlinson is working on a way to make using an exercise bike less of a chore and more of a challenge.

Tour de France
Pit yourself against the likes of Lance Armstrong
The software puts a virtual race on a computer screen and pits the user against the e-cyclists by measuring how fast the pedals crank around. The software comes with a sensor that logs every revolution of the pedals and feeds it back to a computer via a USB port.

Early testing has drawn an enthusiastic response from cyclists who typically have to make do with a small LCD screen with blinking lights on a bar chart. By contrast, the trainer software lets people compete against each other.

"It lets a whole family race against some one else's best time," says Mr Rawlinson.

The competitive element does make a difference.

"There's good evidence to suggest that where you have very strong visual displays that people will work out 10% harder with the same perceived rate of exertion," says Mr Wallace of the FIA.

Watch and learn

Those keen for yet more sophisticated training aids can buy video analysis software that monitors progress and points up the flaws.

Steve Backley
Video analysis helps Steve Backley
Quintic Software also has a working arrangement with UK Athletics and many field sports athletes, such as javelin thrower Steve Backley, use it to hone their technique.

"All we do is slow down what the human eye sees anyway," says Paul Hurrion, head of Quintic.

At the highest levels it can spot tiny flaws in technique that, once corrected or compensated for, can give an athlete an edge they otherwise would lack.

"With a bit of technical work they can make even bigger leaps and bounds," says Mr Hurrion.

Paula Radcliffe winning the London marathon
Talent and determination drives the winners
For amateurs it can simply help them start doing the right things. It can also help parents anxious for their offspring to do well to do a bit of expert coaching.

But there are still places where technology cannot reach and the most scientifically informed training will not improve. Those are the moments when character counts, when true grit and determination push past any shortcomings.

It is then that you are on your own.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

26 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
21 Nov 01 | Health
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